Many Protestants claim that the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory (the Eastern Orthodox are mixed on the issue) comes from Paganism. For this claim, some people decline to offer evidence. In this article I endeavor to present evidence of the affirmative and prove the following:
- Deuterocanonical and Biblical texts do not warrant the claim that there is a Purgatory.
- Platonic philosophy devised Purgatory in the fourth century BC and the idea of Purgatory was already popular among Pagans, as evidenced by it being referenced in the Aeneid (first century BC).
- Third century writings that start mentioning the notion of Purgatory (though not by name) were likely influenced by Platonism.
1. Deuterocanonical and Biblical texts do not bear out Purgatory. I will not belabor this first point, as I have already dealt with it elsewhere. First, let’s deal with the Biblical passages supposedly about Purgatory. The Catholic’s favorite passage is 1 Cor 3:10-15, but in short the passage says that the works of church builders are tested by fire–not that all, or a lot of, believers are purged by fire after death. To say this passage is about Purgatory is an obvious category error. Other passages that are less frequently cited (Ps 66:10-12, Zech 13:9, and Mal 3:2-3) likewise do not speak of Purgatory. Rather, they speak of how believers are disciplined by trials in this life.
Lastly, there is 2 Macc 12 which contains prayers for the dead (probably, the prayer can arguably be on behalf of the living). For one, the passage clearly disapproves of the practice and second it is not clear what purpose the prayers would serve–would they lessen the idolatrous souls’ time in purgatory or would they perhaps sway God’s judgement away from putting them permanently in Gehenna instead of Paradise? We don’t know because the passage does not tell us.
2. Purgatory in Greek philosophy. Obviously ancient Christianity did not arise in an intellectual vacuum. Rather, Greek philosophy in part affected the language of Scripture (John 1:1 and the discussion of Christ being the Logos, for example.) So, being that some Hellenzied Christians and Jews adopted a belief in Purgatory, it should not surprise us that the belief in Purgatory preceded first century AD Judaism.
I will not exhaustively prove this point, but merely cite two prominent examples. First, let’s take what Plato says in Book X of the Republic:
Er the son of Armenius, a Pamphylian by birth…was slain in battle, and ten days afterwards, when the bodies of the dead were taken up already in a state of corruption, his body was found unaffected by decay, and carried away home to be buried. And on the twelfth day, as he was lying on the funeral pile, he returned to life and told them what he had seen in the other world…In the intermediate space there were judges seated, who commanded the just, after they had given judgment on them and had bound their sentences in front of them, to ascend by the heavenly way on the right hand; and in like manner the unjust were bidden by them to descend by the lower way on the left hand…Then he beheld and saw on one side the souls departing at either opening of heaven and earth when sentence had been given on them; and at the two other openings other souls, some ascending out of the earth dusty and worn with travel, some descending out of heaven clean and bright…the souls which came from earth curiously enquiring about the things above, and the souls which came from heaven about the things beneath…told one another of what had happened by the way, those from below weeping and sorrowing at the remembrance of the things which they had endured and seen in their journey beneath the earth (now the journey lasted a thousand years), while those from above were describing heavenly delights and visions of inconceivable beauty. The Story, Glaucon, would take too long to tell; but the sum was this: –He said that for every wrong which they had done to any one they suffered tenfold; or once in a hundred years –such being reckoned to be the length of man’s life, and the penalty being thus paid ten times in a thousand years. If, for example, there were any who had been the cause of many deaths, or had betrayed or enslaved cities or armies, or been guilty of any other evil behaviour, for each and all of their offences they received punishment ten times over, and the rewards of beneficence and justice and holiness were in the same proportion.
The other prominent example is from Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid where his father Anchises says:
Why, when life leaves them at the final hour, still all of the evil, all the plagues of the flesh, alas, have not completely vanished, and many things, long hardened deep within, must of necessity be ingrained, in strange ways. So they are scourged by torments, and pay the price for former sins: some are hung, stretched out, to the hollow winds, the taint of wickedness is cleansed for others in vast gulfs, or burned away with fire: each spirit suffers its own: then we are sent through wide Elysium, and we few stay in the joyous fields, for a length of days, till the cycle of time, complete, removes the hardened stain, and leaves pure ethereal thought, and the brightness of natural air.
Now, are there differences between Plato’s and Virgil’s view of Purgatory, and that of the Catholic Church? Of course. It would be foolish to attempt proving that the doctrine of Purgatory was simply copy and pasted. However, it is abundantly clear that long before 2 Maccabees was written, Plato already relayed a story about how all souls (he includes himself in the end) will be purged for 1,000 years after their deaths before attaining to his view of Paradise (i.e. Elysium). We likewise see a very similar idea in the Aeneid, where the terminology “burned away with fire” is literally used. Even though Virgil believed that both Purgatory and then a temporary stay in Elysium existed, these were both merely preparatory for reincarnation.
3. Early Jewish and Christian References on Purgatory. Recently, Joe Heschmeyer wrote an article on Jewish prayers for the dead. The article quotes one third century AD writing which states that by such prayers a dead person is released from Gehenna. From this, Heschmeyer infers that many Jews believed in Purgatory, and therefore, Purgatory is a pre-Christian belief that is part of legitimate Judaism during Jesus’ day.
In short, there are two problems with this.
- In the New Testament, Gehenna is a term for eternal damnation, and not an intermediary abode. The different usage of the same colloquialism is highly suggestive not of a continuance of a belief from Jesus’ day, but an obvious change in belief.
- One writing from the third century does not prove that the majority of Jews in the third century ascribed to such an idea, let alone proving the idea long predates that time.
To prove #2, I will make the following three points. The third is the longest:
First, if the doctrine of Purgatory was well-established Jewish belief that was carried into Christianity since Apostolic times, why was the doctrine doubtful even in the fifth century? Augustine himself vacillated on the issue. In the Handbook of Faith, Hope, and Love his comment on the doctrine’s doubtfulness reveal that it was surely not universally accepted in his own time: “It is a matter that may be inquired into, and either ascertained or left doubtful, whether some believers shall pass through a kind of purgatorial fire” (Chap 69). In City of God he speaks to the same effect: “But if it be said that in the interval of time between the death of this body and that last day of judgment and retribution which shall follow the resurrection, the bodies of the dead shall be exposed to a fire of such a nature that it shall not affect those who have not in this life indulged in such pleasures and pursuits as shall be consumed like wood, hay, stubble…this I do not contradict, because possibly it is true” (Book 21, Chap 26).
Second, the earliest mention of prayers for the dead in church history belongs to Tertullian’s Montanist screed On Monogamy. In Chapter 10 he writes, “Indeed, she prays for his soul, and requests refreshment for him meanwhile, and fellowship [with him] in the first resurrection; and she offers [her sacrifice] on the anniversaries of his falling asleep.” From this we may gather that the widow shows her loyalty to her deceased husband via prayer for his “refreshment” after death and that she may join him in the resurrection of the righteous. The term refreshment obviously is interpreted by Catholics to mean he is in great pains and the prayers in some sense avail him. However, this is by no means a necessary interpretation. In Rev 6:10 the saints despair of Christian persecutions and request justice from God. Is the “refreshment” in relation to mitigating some sort of perceived despair that exists among those in heaven before the bodily resurrection of the righteous? Without the presupposition that Purgatory exists, such an interpretation is easily workable.
Also, Tertullian does not pass comment on whether the widow is being doctrinally sound in offering such prayers, but rather, merely that she does out of (perhaps Pagan) custom. He merely uses the example to prove why remarriage should not exist, as the custom shows that a true widow always waits for her husband. To take the passage as proof there being Purgatory is to go beyond what the passage is actually teaching.
Let’s move on to the writer Origen who in his Homilies on Jeremiah, explicitly interprets 1 Cor 3:10-15 to be about Purgatory. We should note that his melding of Platonic thought into Christianity, with his belief that the Scriptures contain a higher meaning accessible to only a few, is well known.
It is for this reason I believe that the pre-Christian philosophical belief in Purgatory was imported into Christian and Jewish thought as they imbibed in the philosophies of their day. Being that Rabbinic Judaism today contains overt Gnostic and neo-Platonist tendencies, which surely arose from Roman and Greek influence, any third century or older Jewish beliefs in Purgatory may have the same origins. (I will happily concede that there are pre-Christian beliefs, like there being one God, that are correct and that just because something can be found in Paganism it does not mean it is wrong.)
Third, Catholics must concede that a single third century writing cannot prove that all Jews believed in Purgatory simply because of the example of Firmilian. Allow me to explain–
Catholics may scoff at me and say, “The belief in Purgatory existed ‘early’ and no one revolted against it,” as proof against my assertion that a single third century mention is insufficient. However, Catholics also believe that the entire Church always held that the Bishop of Rome is infallible and the uncontested head of the Church on Earth.
Cyprian, and many of his contemporaries, were clearly in opposition to such an idea in the mid third century. The issue under debate was whether the baptism of Novatian heretics was valid. Cornelius and then Steven, Bishops of Rome, believed that the baptisms were valid and that believers can enter communion in the Church via the laying on of hands. Cyprian, Firmilian (a Bishop in modern-day Turkey), and at least a hundred* or more Bishops from North Africa and the East opposed the “Popes” (as they were not called this at the time) on the issue. To this day, the Eastern Orthodox are divided on this issue, which suggests that the teachings of the Popes were never considered to be binding on a considerable segment of the Church.
That being said, Firmilian’s letter to Cyprian is extremely revealing. In Epistle 74 Firmilian writes that “they who are at Rome do not observe those things in all cases which are handed down from the beginning, and vainly pretend the authority of the apostles” (Chap 6). Clearly, the Popes claimed, and even thought that what they taught was the tradition of the Apostles–however, Firmilian and Cyprian disagreed that they did, because supposedly the Scriptures of the Apostles clearly taught otherwise. Firmilian observed in the same chapter that “there are some diversities among them [the Roman Christians], and that all things are not observed among them alike…just as in very many other provinces also many things are varied because of the difference of the places and names.”
In short, Christians had diversity in their beliefs, something that Firmilian and Cyprian allowed for under the circumstance that the customs were enforced by legitimately installed Bishops. For example, no matter how much they disagreed with Stephen, they did not support schism over a doctrinal dispute.
However, “Stephen has now dared” according to Firmilian to disturb the peace, callously ignoring the Epistles of Paul and Peter. Towards the end of the Epistle, Firmilian warns that Stephen has not heeded Apostolic warnings and that in so doing he “disagreed with so many bishops throughout the whole world, breaking peace with each one of them in various kinds of discord: at one time with the eastern churches, as we are sure you know; at another time with you [Cyprian] who are in the south” (Chap 25).
From this Epistle, we can see that Firmilian claims that more than a few Bishops throughout the whole world recognize not only a vast amount of diversity in Christian belief over baptisms, the date of Easter, and the sacraments (see chap 6), but also that in Rome itself a division of opinion existed. Further, the rest of the world opposed Rome, and as evidenced by Cyprian’s council in Africa and later Eastern Orthodox belief. These men never submitted to Steven’s teaching–something completely incompatible with the idea that the belief in Papal Infallibility was widespread and accepted.
What can a Catholic reply to all of this? Simply, that Cyprian and Firmilian were wrong. And, maybe the Catholic apologist is right.
But, in conceding that, he has proved my point that a single Jewish reference from the third century does not prove that Jews historically accepted Purgatory any more than Origen’s speculations would prove the same among Christians. If a hundred or more Bishops in the third century can be wrong in interpreting the Scriptures and how they apply to baptism and Papal Infallibility, then surely Origen (someone who is not even Sainted) and a damned Jewish writer of the Talmud could be wrong as well.
Conclusion. As we unpack the history of the issue of Purgatory we can firmly conclude the following:
1. The idea was clearly elucidated by Plato and then Virgil.
2. Centuries later it was elucidated by a single Jew and a notable Christian, who is now considered a heretic, in the third century.
3. We know as a matter of fact that Greek thought was obviously imported into both Rabbinic Judaism and that of specific Christian thinkers such as Origen and Augustine.
4. Incompatible with the claim that Purgatory was a belief widely held by Jews and Christians is that in the fifth century Augustine was not convinced of the said doctrine.
5. Catholics must concede that a couple early writings cannot prove that the doctrine of Purgatory was widely accepted, let alone correct, because in so doing they cut themselves at the knees as it pertains to how the doctrine of Papal Infallibility was clearly rejected my scores of Bishops in the third century.
Ultimately, all of the preceding cannot prove that there is not a Purgatory, because this article does not address the issue of religious authority (whether it is found only in the Scriptures or if it is revealed by tradition, which rightly interprets Scriptures that otherwise clearly do not teach the doctrine.) However, I hope I have made the historical case that the doctrine clearly comes from Pagan thought and that a few early adherents does not prove historically that the doctrine is Apostolic.
*This is a number I arrive at by counting all the Bishops who signed onto Cyprian’s council and the reference in Firmilian’s letter that a plurality of Bishops in the East, similar to the number in Africa, agreed with him.